When Doing Good Feels Bad: Why looking away is not the answer

We routinely look away from pain and disillusionment in our efforts to do good. Joanna Macy’s seminal work sheds some light on the reasons for and cost of sticking our heads in the sand, and why allowing ourselves to be in pain is so vital.

I’ve had many conversations lately with people who are deeply disillusioned, exhausted and in pain about their jobs in charities and other organisations working for the ‘greater good’. Maybe you too are one of the many who once deeply cared about their work and lost their spark somewhere along the way. A few years ago, I was on the brink of burn-out. I’d lost the Why. I no longer believed in what I was doing.

It’s a particularly tough one to stomach, when you join fuelled by passionate motivation, and eventually find your engine is running on empty.

But in these jobs, we often think it is normal to suffer. And we think the best way to deal with it is to “get over it” somehow.

“I guess it’s just a job like any other” we say flatly. “Toughen up” our peers tell us, “Have a drink. Go for a run.” Whatever it takes to bury the pain.

Coming Back to Life

On the back of several decades engaged in research and activism for peace, justice and ecology, Joanna Macy has come to deeply understand our reasons for burying our pain.

She has also learned how denying our pain hampers our imagination, creativity and, ultimately, our ability to transform the problems we’re fighting.

Macy’s book Coming Back to Life was a breakthrough for me: Suddenly, I could see the mechanics at work behind the jumble of dark thoughts and self doubt I was caught up in. I could see that it made sense, that I wasn’t alone and that being in pain wasn’t only OK but necessary for finding my way out. And this helped me build the courage to trust my experience and voice it— regardless of how scary it was to contradict the vast majority of my peers.

I’m now remembering this, on the back of witnessing yet another disillusioned aid worker being flooded in advice that was kindly meant but ultimately amounted to a rejection of her experience. It’s all too familiar. I’m remembering what happened when I myself first started voicing my frustrations about the various ways in which our work seemed incongruent and morally unsound. I was surrounded by people impressing on me that I was being overly sensitive, idealistic or negative.

And so I thought I’d share some insights from Coming Back to Life with you, in the hope that others, too, will find the relief and encouragement they gave me.

How nature and nurture make us look away

1. Fear of pain, despair and of losing hope: We look away because, in Western culture, pain, despair and hopelessness are viewed as dysfunctional and weak. We are not encouraged to take enough time to honour our darkest feelings, and so we shut them down.

2. Distrust of our own intelligence: We’re wired to look to the people around us for signals of what is acceptable and what is not. That’s how we learn, as kids, to become functional social creatures. But as adults with a moral compass and some experience under our belts, this isn’t always helpful. It often feels easier to distrust our own judgment and intuition than to challenge the system around us, especially when everyone else seems to be agreeing with it.

This was a big one for me. My default response to what felt wrong was to doubt myself: “If the people around me seem OK with the way things are, why can’t I be? What’s wrong with me?

3. Fear of not fitting in: We carry within us a deep, instinctive drive to fit in, which again has had evolutionary benefits but is not always useful for contemporary challenges. Because voicing anguish, despair, or frustration in the workplace is often viewed as a failure of character and competence, we worry that if we do so, we might be reprimanded, ridiculed or ousted.

4. Avoiding guilt: In this interconnected world, every action (or inaction) on our part, as consumers and citizens, feels inextricably linked with suffering somewhere down the chain. Overwhelmed, we look away.

And there are many more. For example, we fear causing distress (“I don’t want to burden others with my issues”), suffer from hijacked attention (“I’m too busy”), or experience powerlessness (“I no longer think about this because there is nothing I can do”).

The courage to walk where there is no path

The thing is, though, that we cannot selectively numb our feelings. So when we look away and numb our pain, we lose our capacity to experience the good stuff: joy, elation, and hope. We become susceptible to bitterness, exhaustion and mental illness. And with that, as Macy writes, we gradually lose our natural capacity to feel the joy and suffering of others. We lose our empathy, our intuition and imagination:

“[…] free play of imagination requires trust in life and the courage to walk where there is no path. This source of creativity that could liberate us from the dead hand of habit and from the dominant narratives of our time, from conformity and mob mentality, is blocked when we resist images, ideas or feelings that might trigger moral pain.”

So, here’s what Macy is trying to say to us: If you’re trying to do good and it feels messed up, listen to your feelings. Trust your intelligence. And speak up.

In response, many people will urge you to numb, rationalise, and ultimately deny your experience. Often this is because deep down they are scared of having their world blown apart. They’re imploring you not to rock the boat, because they don’t know if they can handle it.

But many others who share your experience will open up to you, and some will give you courage and inspiration to find your own path trough this and your own answers that live up to your values.

None of this is without pain or challenge, but pain that arises from a complete presence to your experience is very different from, and much more healing than the pain that arises from sticking your head in the sand.

So speak up.


With thanks to my dear friends Joel and Michelle Levey for introducing me to Joanna Macy’s work.

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